Investigating sexual assault cases is often frustrating. The majority of sexual assaults are not reported to law enforcement and, when they are, it is difficult to develop enough evidence for a prosecutor to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. Victims are reluctant (understandably) to relate details of an unwanted intimate experience to strangers; the cases often amount to one person’s word against another’s, and, in many cases, unless the suspect has denied contact altogether, the forensic evidence juries crave isn’t dispositive (it confirms there was contact but doesn’t address the issue of whether it was consensual).
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and, rather than focus on the frustrations involved with investigating sexual assault cases, I’d prefer to relate the facts of one of those cases that come around periodically and demonstrate the difference it can make in a person’s life to report a sexual assault to law enforcement. It is cases like these that motivate dedicated law enforcement officers to do their best on every case — because when the pieces come together they can positively impact a life. I have changed the name of the individual involved for privacy reasons.
I met Tara on the Tuesday following Memorial Day weekend a few years ago. Tara was 21 years old and was accompanied by her mother when she came in to report her sexual assault. Tara had been sexually assaulted multiple times between the ages of 7 and 14 by her stepfather. She had kept the assaults — and her pain and turmoil — to herself. For whatever reason, that Memorial Day weekend, she decided it was time to tell her mother about the assaults and write a letter to her stepfather explaining how much he had hurt her.
As Tara related the incident, she described hating trips to the country store with her stepfather to get an ice cream. She hated them because the trip frequently involved a sexual assault by the stepfather in the privacy of his car. It was unclear whether the obligatory ice cream connected with the trip was intended as compensation or a gift to ease his conscience, but whatever it was, she dreaded the trip. I thought of my own children and how a trip to get an ice cream is always an exciting and positive experience, and this drove home to me the impact of the assaults on Tara.
The impact on Tara lasted far beyond an ability to enjoy an ice cream trip. Keeping the abuse to herself caused distance between Tara and her family. She had difficulty keeping a job. She had gotten married and had a son, but that relationship had also suffered due to Tara’s inability to be open about what was hurting her. The marriage failed, and Tara had little contact with her son at the time I met her. She was living in the shed of a small landscape company for which she worked.
Tara related the facts of the assaults. Much of it happened in a neighboring jurisdiction, so I enlisted the help of another detective who worked for that jurisdiction, and he partnered with us to put the case together. Tara’s mother and Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine helped her begin to put her personal life back together. Tara’s case was taken on by a bulldog of a prosecutor who was determined to give Tara her day in court.
Tara had her day in court. She had to relate and relive the incidents in front of the jury. The defense attorney attempted to destroy her credibility by asking questions or calling witnesses to portray her as a freeloader who had made up the allegations of assault because her stepfather refused to help her when she was homeless. Her stepfather’s girlfriend (a new relationship) actually referred to Tara in front of the jury as “white trash.” The defense attorney accused me of manufacturing evidence.
The trial ended, and, after a day’s deliberation, the jury found Tara’s stepfather guilty. He received a sentence that included seven years in prison. While this may not seem like nearly enough, in Maine it is a significant sentence.
A couple months after the trial, I saw Tara and her mother at the Topsham Fair. Tara was all smiles and reported that she now had her own apartment and was the assistant manager of a restaurant. More importantly, Tara’s son was with her, and Tara and her ex-husband were sharing custody.
The little boy was looking forward to a fun trip to the fair with his mother and grandmother. My time at the fair that night was spent directing cars where to park as part of a volunteer effort. The volunteer work provided a lot of reflection time, and I spent most of the night thinking about how much Tara’s decision to disclose the assault to her mother and report it to law enforcement had changed her life for the better.
Capt. Mark M. Waltz of the Brunswick Police Department instructs in sexual assault investigation and is board chairman of Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine. He may be reached at MWaltz@brunswickpd.org. This is one of many OpEds to address the issue of sexual violence during April, which is Sexual Assault Awareness Month.